Saturday, January 28, 2012

Operation: Strawberry

Growing up as a boy in the 80's, slowly becoming aware of the wider world, I soon learned that threats lurked everywhere. A crazed loner could strike down the president all by himself; a strange, scary, incurable disease was spreading across the world. My grandmother told me it could be caught from toilet seats at the mall.

"Don't sit on the seat," she said to me. How was I supposed to empty my bowels at the Bradlee's then? Maybe that is why, even today, I can't poop anywhere but my own house.

Nuclear annihilation seemed a forgone conclusion. While we never had to engage in any "duck and cover" exercises in school, we still felt the presence of ICBMs. For all I knew, they were on their way already.

Perhaps one of the  scariest notions for me was Stranger Danger. The thought of being abducted by someone I didn't know, taken away from my parents and my toys, murdered and buried in the woods somewhere was terrifying. The danger was always presented to me as coming from someone who claimed to be there to help. The subterfuge was this: As I was walking home from school (I'm not sure if kids still do this), someone would pull up in a van (always a van), breathless and slightly panicked. There's been a terrible accident, the stranger would inform me, both of my parents were mangled in a horrific car crash, and with their last dying breaths they asked that this person, a good, trusted friend, whom I had never met, was sent to fetch me. My parents' last wishes were to see my face one last time. This stranger/friend was making sure that wish was fulfilled.

Needless to say, I made it out alive. Statistics prove that the majority of children who go missing, even for a short amount of time, are taken by relatives. Yes, the thought of some weirdo taking your child away, probably molesting them, then chopping them up into little pieces is terrifying and disturbing, but the fear-sowing... was that really necessary? Obviously, cases in which things like this happen lead in the news, following the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.

(In the 5 minutes of research I did for this piece, I've realized that my Google search history would probably be enough to convict me of something awful.)

Staying at home alone was a BIG DEAL for me when I was young. Short of a Bar Mitzvah, a spirit quest, or a circumcision, it was a hurdle toward my becoming a man. One Saturday afternoon, after much cajoling, my folks decided to let me stay at home while they took my brother with them to the mall. My instructions were very clear, and laid out to me repeatedly: Don't answer the door. Ever. If anyone calls and asks for either of my parents, I was to say that they were in the shower. Both of them, at the same time. Don't use the stove.

After locking the door, closing the blinds, and securing the perimeter, I walked around the lonely house, invigorated. So this is what it's like to be a man, I thought. I should do this more often.

At this time, things like televisions were essentially pieces of furniture. I still remember our first color TV, a behemoth Zenith, encased in wood and weighing what was probably several hundred pounds. We also had an all-in-one stereo system, also wood, which had a lid like the hood of a car, covering a record player, the tuner, and an eight-track player. It lived in the hallway. In my memory, it was eight feet long. It had cabinets that opened up to house LPs.

After convincing myself that the house was secure, I went to my room and lay down on my bed, my arms outstretched over my head, staring at the ceiling. I thought about what my new-found maturity, and all the rights and responsibilities that went along with it, when, out in the hallway, a calamitous racket. I sprang up and ran from my room to investigate. I lifted the hood of the stereo, and everything in it was turned on. The record player was spinning, the eight track playing, the tuner illuminated and only half-tuned between stations. It was on full blast. LOUD. What the heck? Haunted Stereo! I turned it off, and returned, shaking, to my bedroom. Ghosts in the Stereo. This wasn't fun anymore.

To counteract Stranger Danger, my brother and I were given codewords. Any friend/stranger sent to retrieve us after our parents were incinerated in an airplane crash would be apprised of our secret codes. When asked to come along with this odd person we were to ask "What's the secret code word?" If they didn't know the password, we were to run away!!!

NEVER tell your secret word to anyone, we were told. Recently I posted this query to some friends in an online forum:

Me: Growing up, did any of you get the "stranger danger" talk? My brother and I had code-words given to us. We were told to never go with any strangers unless they knew the secret word. Mine was "strawberry".

Alethea: You are NEVER supposed to share that password!!!!!!
I will not tell you mine.

Alex: We had that. I think the secret word was tornado. To this day I'll get into a car with anyone who says tornado.

Alethea: tornado.

: OK! Hey why are you tugging at my belt like that?

Lisa: we had a password too, and my first thought when you posted it here was, I can't BELIEVE you shared your password! i'll never tell what ours was.

Alethea: they are idiots.

: Me and strawberry tornado gonna have a good time tonight!

Alex: You just won't admit that you didn't have a password. And you didn't have a password because your parents were content to see you get kidnapped.

I love those guys.

Once I had some shop tools I wanted to get rid of, so I posted them for free on Craigslist. A girl showed up to take my glass saw. I met her at the door and invited her up to the apartment, which she did automatically. As soon as we were alone in my apartment, my Stranger Danger alarm went off and I thought "What the hell  is wrong with you?" I could have chopped her into pieces with the very glass saw she was there to take, had I been so inclined. (Oh delightful irony) Obviously she never had a secret word. Or perhaps her common sense had taken leave of her. I just remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable. From then on, any Craigslist transactions took place on the front stoop, in full view of the neighbors. 

A few years ago I was at a bar with some friends and I met a guy named George who told stories about when he was kidnapped.  His father and mother had had a nasty split once George was born, and his dad had absconded with him into the wilderness; his earliest memories were of his dad siphoning gas from cars in Mexico as they made their way. I remember being jealous of this origin story. I wish I had a story even nearly as interesting to tell about my beginning days. George seemed as if he'd made it out OK. I wonder if he had a secret word?

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